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What is a Biochemist Doing Teaching Business?

Six months ago I was a postdoc working on G protein kinetics in a biochemistry department; now I'm working as an Enterprise Fellow at Manchester Science Enterprise Centre (MSEC) where I teach university students "business enterprise" -- entrepreneurship -- while I try to start up my own business. This is not as bizarre a transformation as you may think.

My interest in the commercial side of science probably began during my MSc course in Biotechnology at University College London (UCL), where I conducted a 4-month research project at Glaxo R&D on high throughput screening of enzyme inhibitors for cancer prevention. I went on to choose a Ph.D. project with an industrial angle, working at Southampton University on a patented antibody binding protein that could have important medical applications. My Ph.D. was funded by a so-called industrial CASE PhD award, in which a company sponsors a student to carry out work in areas of mutual interest to a university and the company.

Not "just an accountant"

While doing my Ph.D., I realised that my interests lay in working on useful products rather than just publishing data that perhaps 10 people in the world would ever read. I already knew I wanted to switch over to the business side at some stage. But I also appreciated that to gain credibility in the science business world I would need some more years of research experience. My rationale was when I did finally enter the business side of science, I would still be able to connect with academics/inventors and wouldn't be thought of as "just an accountant".

Therefore, I thought the most logical step would be to do a postdoc project with commercial applications. I did my postdoc at the National Institute for Medical Research in London using a fluorescent phosphate sensor to analyse cellular biochemical pathways. This sensor was in the process of being commercialised by Medical Research Council (MRC)-Technology, the MRC's commercial arm. During my Ph.D. and postdoc, I was gradually acquiring more knowledge about the commercialisation of research, mainly by speaking to people informally about business issues.

After my postdoc, I decided it was time to part ways with academic science and seriously considered my career options in the commercial angle of science. I started to apply for technology transfers positions at universities and business development roles in companies. My academic CV, which went on and on about kinetics, fluorescence, and other things that would have sent someone outside my field running, was thrown in the fire, and I started thinking hard about what transferable skills I had gained during my time in academia.

These skills and attributes--presentation skills, writing skills, a flexible work attitude, multitasking--are developed by most postdocs during their time at the bench, but they're often undervalued by employers and--especially--by ourselves. These "soft" skills, together with the insight I gained from my Ph.D. and postdoc into the commercial value of university research projects, were my trump cards.

But at first I had little luck. The rare interviews I secured seemed to focus on my lack of documented business skills. I suppose that my industrial experience probably got me a couple of interviews, but I soon found that my academic training, rather than being an asset, was sometimes a burden. Business people often view academics as not commercially-minded enough. I had been thinking about commercialisation for years, but they couldn't see past my academic credentials to realise this.

Then I applied for the position of "Enterprise Fellow" at MSEC. Via a 15-minute presentation and a panel interview, I convinced them I had what it takes, and they convinced me that it would be a great opportunity. I was one of three enterprise fellows taken on at that time. We had a mix of backgrounds: one colleague has an academic Ph.D., industry sales experience in process and analytical instrumentation, and a postgraduate teaching qualification (second level). The other is an academic biologist with an MBA. This diversity creates an interesting and rich working environment and puts at our disposal a wide portfolio of experiences that we can offer the students.

So what does an enterprise fellow do? My primary role is teaching business enterprise to both undergraduate and postgraduate students from scientific and non-scientific backgrounds. For undergrads, this takes the form of a basic course that enables them to become more literate in business and entrepreneurial matters.

At the post-graduate level, the teaching is more applied; for our MSc course the student brings an idea--a research project--and works to acquire the skills needed to turn the idea into a business. Teaching a subject while I am still learning about it myself is obviously very challenging. Yet I have often found that there is a lot more common sense in business theory than, for example, the hieroglyphics of kinetic mechanisms that I had been studying for years.

Constantly making new contacts

There is also a big networking element to my job. We are in close contact with the other Science Enterprise Centres in the U.K.; we meet regularly to discuss new ideas. We are also constantly making new contacts with people who can help us and our students at events like BEX (Business Enterprise Xchange), an exhibition and conference aimed at small businesses and start-ups.

In order to keep our own skills up to date, we take part in a wide programme of external activities. One such activity was a workshop in Enschede, The Netherlands, where we joined forces with colleagues from the Universities of Twente and Lunenburg to submit a marketing and management strategy for Ten Cate Thiolon, an innovation-driven company making artificial grass for football pitches!

Aside from our teaching and networking duties, we must keep up-to-date on the tech-transfer scene including legal issues and sources of funding, and I keep an eye on how and what sorts of companies are spinning out of universities.

We also have time to pursue our own projects. In my case, I'm making sure my bioscience knowledge does not go completely to waste by writing a business plan for a biotech start-up company that I wish to set up here in Manchester.

As more and more departments begin to realise the value of enterprise for their subject areas, I believe there will be more demand for enterprise lecturers from a range of backgrounds, including Ph.D.'s, particularly if the Research Assessment Exercises (RAE, a U.K. government measurement of the quality of an institution's research) begins to recognise patents and spin-off companies as a valuable part of university productivity, rather than counting only research papers.

In addition to developing teaching skills, I found it's important to maximise your "free" time to develop business interests and network without supervision, if you are interested in this sort of work. You also need to be flexible and able to change direction at short notice. Yet, in many ways, academic science study--especially when it's complemented with work in an industrial setting--provides excellent preparation in the basic skills you need to practice--and to teach--enterprise in a scientific context.

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